© 2017 - EIB Digital | All Rights Reserved.
Eden Hazard came off the bench to make the decisive contribution as Chelsea won an FA Cup semi-final classic against Tottenham at Wembley.
Hazard had been rested, along with Diego Costa, as Chelsea manager Antonio Conte shuffled his pack against a Spurs side high on confidence after closing to within four points of their London rivals in the Premier League title race.
But the Belgian emerged as substitute to help settle an enthralling encounter.
Willian, in for Hazard, gave Chelsea the lead with a fine free-kick after five minutes but Harry Kane levelled for Spurs with an instinctive stooping header before the Brazilian put Conte’s side back in front from the penalty spot just before the break – Son Heung-min penalised for a foul on Victor Moses.
Spurs seemed to have the momentum after Dele Alli converted Christian Eriksen’s brilliant pass seven minutes after half-time – before Hazard was introduced as Chelsea’s trump card, along with Costa, on the hour.
Hazard drove powerfully past Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris after 75 minutes and Nemanja Matic set up an appearance alongside Arsenal or Manchester City in the FA Cup final with a spectacular drive five minutes later.
Conte raised eyebrows with a team selection that saw Belgian outcast Michy Batshuayi given a rare outing on this huge occasion.
It led to suggestions Conte was prioritising the Premier League title race with Spurs after last weekend’s jaded performance in the 2-0 defeat at Manchester United.
The winner takes the spoils, though, and Conte has every right to accept the plaudits as Chelsea won a magnificent game of football to reach the FA Cup final.
Conte used Hazard and Costa at a crucial juncture – on the hour, with Spurs building up a head of attacking steam and looking the more assertive side – after Alli had equalised for the second time.
Hazard, a scourge of Spurs having scored the goal that effectively ended their title chances last season, was involved in what turned out to be the defining moment 15 minutes after coming on, hitting a low drive that gave Chelsea a lead they would not surrender.
It was also an illustration that the strength of Chelsea’s squad runs deeper than Tottenham’s as they were able not only to bring on Hazard and Costa but also Cesc Fabregas to change the face of the game.
Spurs counterpart Mauricio Pochettino did not enjoy such success with his tactical tweaks, especially the decision to play Son as a left wing-back.
The South Korean never settled to his task or looked like reproducing the attacking threat that has been such a feature of Spurs’ recent outstanding run of form – and his decision to go to ground provided an open invitation for referee Martin Atkinson to award a 43rd-minute penalty for his challenge on Moses.
Conte and Chelsea were the winners of this battle.
If Spurs do make Wembley their home next season while a new stadium is built at White Hart Lane, they must somehow find a way of lifting the curse that has afflicted them on recent visits here.
Since beating Chelsea 2-1 to left the League Cup in 2008, they have played at Wembley nine times – winning once, losing six times and drawing once before today.
This was their third FA Cup semi-final loss in that time, following a 2-0 loss to Portsmouth in the 2010 FA Cup semi-final and a 5-1 loss to Chelsea two years later. They also lost League Cup finals to Manchester United in 2009 and Chelsea in 2015.
The Champions League also proved an unhappy home this season as they went out at the group phase after staging their games at Wembley.
As the Spurs players trooped off, they must have wondered what they have to do to win here because – for large parts – this was an excellent performance in a match of the highest quality.
Spurs looked to have the game in their hands at 2-2 but could not provide the sure touch in front of goal that has served them so well in recent times, despite dominating possession.
This failing was underlined by Chelsea’s ability to ruthlessly punish every Spurs flaw, from Lloris not quite covering Willian’s free-kick to Son’s injudicious dive to concede the penalty.
Spurs are developing into a side with outstanding talent in all parts of the pitch but they were brought down by Chelsea’s streetwise, experienced approach and Conte’s clever use of his greater resources.
Will Chelsea’s win settle the title race?
Spurs must have felt the door to a Premier League title triumph was ajar after their seventh successive home win against Bournemouth last weekend reduced Chelsea’s lead to four points before they lost at Old Trafford.
Chelsea were hit hard by that loss and suddenly questions were being asked about a team that looked to be making serene progress towards the finishing line, as Spurs suddenly appeared on their shoulders.
This, however, was an emphatic response of resilience and brilliance from Conte’s side as they reasserted themselves over their closest rivals with a win they will hope has enough psychological impact to give them that extra push towards a title that has looked theirs for so long.